A couple of years ago I gave a lecture drawn from the book Borne on the South Wind (Wichita, KS: Wichita Eagle, 1994), about the history of aviation in Kansas. I concentrated on some of the pioneers, and it struck me that the state’s rise to the forefront of aviation in the USA was largely the product of one man’s vision. He died in relative obscurity, a pauper, in 1940, but at different times had worked with, or employed, several key figures in the history of US aviation.
That man was Jacob “Jake” Moellendick. Born in Ohio in 1879, he made his fortune in the oilfields outside Wichita in the early years of the 20th Century. It is unclear how he got he aviation bug, but by 1919 had founded the Wichita Airplane Company and, at a partner’s suggestion, persuaded Emil Matthew “Matty” Laird to move from Chicago to Wichita. Moellendick and Laird founded the E.M. Laird Airplane Company. Laird had some ideas for modifying the design of the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” to carry two people in the front cockpit. His design, originally known as the Laird Tractor or Laird Wichita Tractor, became known as the Laird Swallow. The Swallow has the distinction of being America’s first commercially produced aircraft.
Laird and Moellendick’s business relationship was strained by the latter’s penchant for making executive decisions without consulting his partner. Hiring Lloyd and Waverly Stearman was OK with Laird, but expanding the factory and hiring a test pilot named Walter Beech was not. Laird left in 1923 and returned to Chicago. George B. “Buck” Weaver was next to express his discontent. He left to form the Weaver Airplane Company (WACO).
Lloyd Stearman and Walter Beech had an idea to improve the Swallow by making a tubular steel fuselage frame. Moellendick was enraged at the suggestion, and invited them to take their proposal and their employment elsewhere. They did. They went to see Clyde Cessna, and the result of that meeting was the Travel Air Manufacturing Company. Office manager at Travel Air was Olive Ann Mellor. The Travel Air company and its products achieved almost legendary status, and rightly deserves its own chapter in the annals of American aviation history.
One of Travel Air’s early customers was a young pilot named Charles Lindbergh, who thought a Travel Air would be ideally suited for a long distance flight from New York to Paris. Beech declined the order, with the result that Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in a Ryan monoplane.
Cessna left Travel Air to pursue his own ideas, especially about the development of monoplanes. Stearman left Travel Air to form his own company in California, but ironically Stearman Aircraft would return to Wichita later. Stearman’s own career would take him back to California where he ended his days at Lockheed. Walter and Olive Ann Beech sold Travel Air before the bottom fell out of the aviation business in the depression. Walter would later buy the Travel Air business back from its owners and with two seminal designs, the Model 17 “Staggerwing” biplane and the Model 18 twin engined monoplane, put Beech Aircraft – Beechcraft – into the forefront of American Aviation.
Moellendick persevered with Swallow, and sank most of his personal finance into the Dallas Spirit, a racing monoplane development which was lost in the infamous 1927 Dole Air Derby from Oakland to Honolulu. The loss signed the death warrant of the company. Various figures apparently tried to keep Swallow afloat, but the company went under and, having sold his interest, Jake Moellendick died penniless. The cost of his funeral was covered by figures from the local aviation community who didn’t want to see him buried in a pauper’s grave by Sedgwick County, Kansas.
As a footnote, some histories record that Gerald “Jerry” Vultee worked for Swallow early in his his career. The biographies are sufficiently vague as to offer no confirmation, but if this is true, it gives increased emphasis to Jake Moellendick’s crucial role in Kansas and American aviation.